Case Study - "Can You See Me?": Writing toward Clarity in a Software Development Life Cycle

Case Study - "Can You See Me?": Writing toward Clarity in a Software Development Life Cycle

Anne DiPardo (University of Colorado, USA) and Mike DiPardo (Chezelle Group, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-994-6.ch003
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This chapter presents a case study detailing how geographically dispersed software developers employ writing in the process of creating and troubleshooting products for use in the healthcare industry. It focuses particularly on their efforts to arrive at language that unambiguously reflects functional requirements and optimal design principles. After a brief history of the company and the evolution of its national and international virtual collaboration practices, the authors turn to the role of text across particular task cycles, exploring the uses of writing in generating, designing, and refining plans and products. Focusing on a series of three composing sequences, the authors highlight the incremental process by which the team moves toward a shared sense of understanding and linguistic precision. They argue that in contrast to common conceptions of texts as simple containers for preformed ideas, these episodes provide a more nuanced picture, as writing comes to play a central role in constituting and fine-tuning meaning and in maintaining strong working relationships throughout the processes of developing and refining products. They close with implications for preparing diverse virtual teams for participation in tasks that demand exacting uses of the written word.
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Back in the dawn of the digital era, an IBM® training film featured a classic Muppets sketch in which a wild-eyed, fang-toothed creature named Wheel-Stealer encounters a talking computer blandly reciting its own technical manual. The hungry Muppet proceeds to eat the machine, blowing up just as the computer can be heard explaining that its purpose is to create a huge explosion (Henson, 1971/2006). Then as now, it seems, when it comes to presenting technical information, clarity and timing matter quite a lot.

An array of technical writing handbooks has flooded the market in the years since, each imploring readers to adopt a concise, easy-to-follow, and precise prose style (for example, Alred, Brusaw, & Oliu, 2003; O’Keefe & Pringle, 2000; Van Laan, Julian, & Hackos, 2001; Young, 2002). Given the ubiquity of such admonitions, one might hope that Wheel-Stealer would enjoy a happier outcome today. Then again, perhaps the enduring market for such resources testifies to the tenacity of the problem—for despite these efforts at fostering clarity, most of us know all too well the experience of intending to communicate one thing and being understood as meaning quite another. In contemporary geographically dispersed, high-technology workplaces, efforts to develop unambiguous prose—whether to inform in-house collaboration, to share information and ideas, or to provide guidance to clients—are fraught with uncertainty and complexity. As workers collaborate across divides that are linguistic and cultural as well as spatial and national, casting shared understandings in transparently precise prose remains an often elusive goal. It is one thing for self-help writers to call for writing that defies misinterpretation, but producing such prose can be quite another. As cross-national virtual collaborative writing becomes commonplace, workers must be closely attentive to the potential for miscommunications that, if left undetected, can result in confusion, time delays, and even project, product, or enterprise failure. Such miscommunication can be alleviated in part by considering ways to address the first and third principles that ground this book, which are to develop a culture of collaboration and to establish trust among team members. This chapter further illuminates these principles through an exploration of how these principles were realized in the working dynamics of a particular collaborative team..

The question of whether written texts can stand as unambiguous representations of meaning—representations, that is, that mean the same across places and times—has been hotly debated for many years among scholars of literacy. In the latter twentieth century, several now-classic works argued that the advent of alphabetic literacy and explicit prose styles made possible new ways of thinking and reflecting. These were said to include not only the capacity to look back critically at one’s own earlier words and deeds, but also to contemplate and critique history writ large (Goody & Watt, 1963; Havelock, 1980; Olson, 1977). In the decades since, many literacy researchers have taken issue with the notion that written texts can ever be so unambiguously explicit as to ensure stable meaning across readers and contexts (Olson, Bloome, Dyson, Gee, Nystrand, Purcell-Gates, & Wells, 2006). As writing scholars have turned to the importance of culture in shaping how texts are constructed, understood, and used, the field has come to recognize that no text—let alone drafts produced in the press of a workday—can ever be entirely safe from unintended interpretations and responses.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cultural Artifact: Mediational object used by a member of a community to interact with other members. Examples of cultural artifacts are pencils, books, iPods, computer operating systems, and so forth.

Distributed Learning: Decentralized instructional model in which teachers, students, and the resources are located in different places. Sometimes a synonym for distance learning.

Distributed Cognition: Cognitive theory emphasizing the idea that cognition expands from the individual to the community and its artifacts.

Learning Community: Group of people who share common educational goals and typically work in a collaborative, non-hierarchical fashion to achieve these goals.

Learning Object: Reusable learning unit, usually digital, that can be combined into a bigger unit.

Orkut: An Internet social network created by Google, in which users display their profiles, receive and send messages, post testimonials, and create communities.

Activity: Minimal unit of investigation in socio-cultural theories, involving a subject, an object, mediational tools, and the community with its rules and division of labor.

Mediated Action: Use of cultural artifacts (pencil and paper, data projector, computer programs, etc.) for the purpose of attaining a given objective such as demonstrating a theorem or learning a foreign language.

Activity Theory: Socio-cultural theory initiated by Vygotsky and his colleagues, based on the idea that human activity is situated in social context and mediated by psychological and physical instruments such as language, dancing, books, or computers.

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